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In defence of the maul

By Daniel Gallan
Matt Philip of the Wallabies competes in the scrum during game three of the International Test match series between the Australia Wallabies and England at the Sydney Cricket Ground on July 16, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

It takes a lot to irritate Simon Middleton. England’s Red Roses coach has cultivated an affable persona, one that might be described in a biopic’s script as “a quintessentially hard working northern lad”. It’s not a ruse. He is a genuine grafter who has devoted his life to the betterment of women’s rugby in the country for eight years since he joined the sevens programme. Any journalist who has interviewed him will tell you what a decent human he is.

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And yet, Middleton was triggered by criticisms levelled at his side after their 41-5 win over Australia in their World Cup quarterfinal match on Sunday. It wasn’t exactly a red mist, more like cerise or coral, but there was no doubt the usually serene man was now annoyed.

“Does it frustrate me? Probably a little. It baffles me a little bit.”

The source of Middleton’s confusion were the accusations that England’s dominance was built upon a foundation that was boring to witness. That their driving maul from the base of a perfectly drilled line-out was somehow turning people off the sport even though it was racking up points on the scoreboard.

“It takes all sorts,” Middleton added, incredulous that he’d have to defend a strategy that has taken his team to the brink of World Cup glory while securing a string of 29 wins in a row.

“Rugby doesn’t have to be play, play, play and shift, shift, shift. That’s southern hemisphere rugby – fantastic. We’re a northern hemisphere side. We’re very good at what we do, they’re very good at what they do. You play to your strengths and I don’t really recognise the criticism.”

I’m with Middleton. The disapproval is unfounded. World Cups are there to be won. Nothing else matters at the apex of the game. And if England have built an unstoppable weapon why wouldn’t they bring it out at every opportunity? As the Roses captain Sarah Hunter said, “Ultimately, no one’s going to look back and go, ‘Oh, how did England score?’”

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But that only half explains why the naysayers and fist shakers are off the mark. Not only is the maul an effective tool in registering tries and milking penalties, it’s also a thing of beauty. Hear me out.

I genuinely enjoy the sight of several large people clustered into a tight formation pushing another group of large people backwards. In my mind that is rugby union. It pokes at the primal part of my brain. Something deep within my subconscious, a hangover from an ancient time that predates iPhones and Tik-Tok and the printing press is stirred by a mass of humanity marching in step across the gain-line.

What’s more, the maul, more than most plays found on the field, is a craft that has to be honed on by practice. An effective maul is proof of a cohesive team working as one. This requires precise coaching. It requires hours of dedication and attention to detail. It requires professionalism. This is why England’s Red Roses do it better than their competitors. No other women’s programme spends as much money on their players. The maul is a by-product of this investment.

The same is true in the men’s game. Rassie Erasmus has been praised to the point of deification in South Africa after he took control of a misfiring Springboks outfit and turned them into world champions in 18 months. His selection of Siya Kolisi as captain was an inspired decision and he has married the team’s social responsibility with their performances on the field. But it is his coaching acumen that has earned him his adoration.

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AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 30: <a href=
Emily Chancellor of Australia competes in a maul during the Rugby World Cup 2021 New Zealand Quarterfinal match between England and Australia at Waitakere Stadium on October 30, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)” width=”1290″ height=”840″ /> AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – OCTOBER 30: Emily Chancellor of Australia competes in a maul during the Rugby World Cup 2021 New Zealand Quarterfinal match between England and Australia at Waitakere Stadium on October 30, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

In the Chasing the Sun documentary, which chronicles the Springboks’ journey from chumps to champs, we witness Erasmus’s genius at work. Two moves stand out. One, an impenetrable construction from a line-out inside their own half shunts the Japanese pack backwards by 50m before Malcom Marx splinters and offloads to Faf de Klerk who scores. The second is a midfield maul simply dubbed, “The Move”, which wins a penalty against England at a crucial stage in the final.

Can anyone really look at those two plays and argue that they are the consequence of nothing more than brute strength? Can anyone who identifies as a fan of the sport seriously not acknowledge the immense skill and effort required to pull these off?

I’ve seen some wild ideas on how to “improve” rugby as a spectacle. One popular Twitter account proposed penalties kicked out of touch in the opposition 22 should then result in a change of possession. Another suggested we scrap the maul altogether, compelling scrum-halves to shift the ball towards their backs as soon as it comes down from the line-out.

Here’s another idea. Why don’t we put an end to line-outs entirely? While we’re at it, let’s scrap the breakdown contest and take away the contest at the scrum. If only there was another code that reduced rugby to a game of running and passing without all that other nonsense.

 

Much of the tension around mauls focuses on the seemingly inevitable outcome. But Australia’s maul defence against Scotland last weekend showed that teams still have to work for their tries and penalties and that organised resistance can halt their advance. It’s not just a case of gathering the heavies and lumping them forward. Grace and poise must match the heft and heave.

If the Springboks beat Ireland this weekend they’ll no doubt register points on the back of their maul. Either through tries scored in the corner or through penalties kicked after forcing an infringement, this brutal implementation will be at the heart of much of South Africa’s success.

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